Ok, I was wrong, it seems that Google is indeed "making you stupid"

046 April 24, 2016 -- (asphalt)

Back in Cretaceous while I was still publishing my thoughts on the old blog, I participated in a very interesting debate with people of the so-called "Romanian blogosphere" of those times1. The discussion was on the influence of the Internet on the various real and/or perceived properties of human thought.

More precisely, some guy had previously published in The Atlantic an essay entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", to which I hastily, in my sheer naïveté, responded that no, it couldn't be such, since some of us still enjoy that otherwise unfashionable activity of deep reading; and moreover, that this isn't a problem worthy of focusing on, since civilization will adapt as it has in the past and so on and so forth.

In retrospect, the reader must agree with the premise that the question posed by the initial article denotes idiocy on the author's part. I don't remember whether this was the case at the time, but "Is X verb Y?" is a memetic Newspeak-ism that deliberately obfuscates meaning. What does "making" mean? who is "us"? what does "stupid" mean? and so on and so forth. What qualia does the article propose to scrutinize? Of course, it's easy to quote personal experiences, anecdotes and so-called studies, and to reason upon them. What's considerably more difficult is being rigorous about the whole bullshit, at the risk of offending others. Pertinent sociological studies may or may not have been done in the meantime, you are welcome to point them out to me if you see fit. Meanwhile, let us take a different approach to deconstructing the problem.

Google is a wonderful tool, as are the Web and the Internet2. There was essentially nothing before the Internet, and very little before the Web3. While Google (the search engine) is a great piece of software, it's far from being the first of its kind, which means that the necessity of being able to find things in the vast stuff of the Web4 was there not in 1998, not even in 1995, but from the very beginning of things. Thus denying the usefulness of, and moreover, the need for Google as a tool for finding information on the Internet would be like denying the need for a hammer to drive nails or the need for a gun to shoot down your enemy5.

However, Google has, like many things have since that day in 2001 when the world ended for a brief moment, gone through many sets of transformations. At some point -- I cannot tell exactly when, and again, maybe here the perspicacious reader might have the patience to enlighten me -- it became a tool that was separated from its purpose, or, to put it more bluntly, it became a victim of marketing, not unlike Facebook6 and many others which we won't recollect here due to space constraints.

So yes, breaking news! your environment is shaping the way you think in both subtle and obvious ways. In his essay, Carr gives us Nietzsche's example,

"You are right," Nietzsche replied, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose 'changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.'

but he deliberately ignores the initial conditions that he himself has observed:

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

Kittler's observation is an interesting one, to say the least. However, stating that the author's writing was shaped by the typewriter is no more and no less valid than stating that it was largely influenced by his failing eyesight or his age. For all we know, it probably was a mix of these conditions -- and indeed, of many others -- that led to his telegraphic writing.

So yes, I was wrong, Google "is making you7 stupid" if8 you've accustomed yourself to viewing the world through the narrow screen of an Android phone, subjecting yourself to the random information its so-called "timeline"9 is feeding you, going through regurgitated "targeted" and "tailored" "news" or whatever it is that you're consuming. It is indeed turning you into a "pancake", or worse yet, into an amorphous mass of goo ready to be shaped into a mold, by constantly asking for your attention through endless "notifications" that you'll never bother to disable, for the sake of "user experience". For all I know, Google's already achieved its purpose, so now what?

While I admire Carr's conservativeness and his asking of questions almost eight years ago, I can only laugh at his own naïveté:

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives -- or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts -- as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there's been little consideration of how, exactly, it's reprogramming us. The Net's intellectual ethic remains obscure.

On the contrary, I think there's been much consideration. Google's machine learning algorithms have reduced your intellect to a statistical model. That is all you are now, and even if you think more of yourself, that doesn't matter to Google, and no one will ever see why it would. "Like", "share", "unique viewers" and "returns" are all that matter.

What's more baffling is the fact that, for all the debates it has stirred all over the web these past few years, Nicholas Carr's essay remains a brief historical "I told you so" note and not much else. This is -- quite ironically, come to think of it -- an illustration of the fact that "awareness" doesn't work when it involves actual thinking. Meanwhile, more irony at eleven o'clock: The Atlantic fucks its readers over with shitty ads and civilization continues to fail.

  1. This is in a purely coincidental manner related to this post's subject. A generation ago "those times" used to mean "a generation ago", while now "those times" means "five or six years ago". Of course, the idea of whether "a lot of time" actually passed between then and now is still up for debate.

  2. I assume that the astute reader is able to distinguish and discriminate between the three. Otherwise, there's the door.

  3. People of "the previous generation" might remember Gopher, Usenet and so on. I wasn't there, but it would make a lot of sense to compare these to nowadays' technologies, which would give some historical perspective on the latter's actual usefulness.

  4. But not -- and this is a very important point -- on the Internet. Although CERN's version of hypertext appeared while the Internet was still largely an experimental thing, the two developed independently. That is, there is a vast amount of stuff in the even vaster amount of stuff that is the Internet that you won't find using Google. Ever.

  5. Feel free to replace "Google" with an equally stupid name that you and your friends use.

  6. Facebook has a very similar history to Google's. It wasn't the first social networking site, maybe not even the greatest, but it became "the norm" in this field.

    They're also very similar in that they're both serving the same purpose nowadays, which is serving ads, more so that Google is desperately trying to become the Social Network, while Facebook is desperately trying to become the Search Engine. Funny how these things go, right?

  7. Not "us". Never us.

  8. This is a very big "if". As a matter of fact, Diana was spot-on on her initial point that Google merely gives you the opportunity to dumben yourself. Fortunately for us sane people, this doesn't make it any less useful of a search engine.

  9. Or "stream". Same shit, really.